I came across an article a while ago about an unusual friendship between a monkey and a dog. Apparently there was a terrible flood, somewhere in Africa where terrible things like this happen, and the two animals were trapped. They somehow survived the rivers created by the endless rain, and they have been inseparable ever since. They sleep together, eat together and, perhaps most unusual of all, the monkey rides on the dog’s back. If you can find a photo of this, it leaves you with the feeling that it is both the most unnatural and natural thing you have ever seen. It’s more Disney than Disney.
After I found the article I wanted to write a story about these two friends, but it never came out right. I kept coming back to the image of the two living in an apartment building in New York City after a terrible flood had forced everyone to flee the island. But the thing I kept getting stuck on whenever I tried to write this story wasn’t the situation between the dog and the monkey, but the building. I pictured it as the brown brick and black glass structure on First Avenue and 36th Street — the same building where I lived with my father for almost four years. Why I wanted to write about the African monkey and dog duo living there still eludes me, but the point is I couldn’t make it work no matter how hard I tried. The story didn’t want to be written.
I’m sure it has something to do with how we ended up there. My father and I moved to 36th Street in the summer of 1986, about five or six months after my mother was killed in an accident somewhere in Brooklyn while she was waiting for the bus. Looking back, I bet there were some people who thought we were running away, or more specifically, that my father was running away, since I was only 13, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Yes, we didn’t want to think about what had happened to our lives; we didn’t want to look at her clothes and her toothpaste, to feel the emptiness of the apartment in Brooklyn. But the new environment was healing. When we moved I felt that the first part of my life had been a dream. I pretended that I had an overactive imagination and had invented the whole thing. I tried to believe that I always lived in the building on 36th Street, and I think that helped, although I could be wrong.
One of the things that I liked about our new home was that it was sterile. Even the exterior had a coldness to it. Most houses and small apartment buildings look like faces, or at least I can imagine a face hiding in their brick and glass features, but our building was faceless. It was more like a giant robot with his back turned to the world and his power supply cut.
The apartment itself was also clean and minimal, as opposed to the clutter and crust of our old place. Not that the old place wasn’t nice — it was, in fact, a beautiful duplex in Park Slope — but it wasn’t as organized as the new place. Here, all the appliances, floors, and walls were brand new. The handles on the faucets were probably less than a year old, and to me their newness was a sign of beauty.
The people who lived in this building were like the facade that blocked the sun and wind — anonymous, indifferent, invisible. Nobody said hello or asked what was new, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with the behavior. I wasn’t going to run into anyone who would tell me how sorry they were to hear about my mother.
I’m not sure what month it was when we put the boxes on the truck to move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but it was hot. I remember the first night in the city we ate pizza, the same thing I ate the night my mother was killed, but I didn’t blame my father for the choice. I looked over at where I was going to be sleeping, a converted corner of the living room. For the first time in my life I wasn’t going to have a bedroom — again I was oddly pleased. It was almost like I didn’t exist. The bed was hidden behind a cleverly designed unit that converted into a couch, and the only sign that the corner of the apartment was mine was a small shelf for my favorite books and records — maybe 20 of each. That was it. No desk, no closet, no stacks of paper or skateboard magazines, just a place to lay my head and some headphones attached to a sleek new stereo.
That summer I also got into the habit of going to the movies almost every day. I had no friends in Manhattan and nothing to do, plus I didn’t really know the city all that well, so going to different theaters was a great way to learn how to get around. To this day whenever I travel, I always try to see as many movies as possible, because this way you get to see the real neighborhoods and feel like you are a part of the place you are in and not just visiting. So each week I was uptown, downtown, west, and east. I saw a lot of bad movies, but I did a lot of walking and learned Manhattan’s grid. Sometimes I would get to a film hours before the first show started so I could be first in line and then sit around and watch the traffic and the people around me. And again, nobody was going to stop and ask me how I was feeling. The only human interaction I had involved ticket sales and how much fake butter I wanted on my popcorn.
I can’t remember most of the films I saw that summer, but there was one French film about free-diving that I loved. Free-diving is the sport where people compete to see how far they can be dragged beneath the ocean before their air runs out, and like all great sports it’s very beautiful and very dangerous. There was symmetry in the images of the ocean cutting the horizon in perfect 50/50 slices. And beneath the ocean on the screen there was nothing but blue water and the slender image of the diver going deeper and deeper, reaching out towards death to win the contest. The film reminded me of the pool on the top floor of our new building. After seeing the film I made going to the pool part of my daily ritual and I would see how long I could hold my breath under the chlorinated water. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t beat a certain record. My body wouldn’t allow me to die down there — it’s impossible to hold your breath until your heart stops unless something besides your will is dragging you down.
Maybe that was the connection I was trying to make between the monkey, the dog, the water, and the building. I tried to picture them as I pictured myself — somewhat alone, but not entirely miserable. In my vision they have each other, and the freedom to do whatever they want: Go through the garbage, find some blankets, watch the endless rain.
But like I said, it never panned out. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t there, it’s just not on paper. I still think about the monkey and the dog all the time. I imagine them living in my building, wandering the same halls I wandered. Maybe they go out for a stroll and check out all the decaying movie theaters uptown, downtown and all over. Or maybe they are up there on the roof having a swim and competing with each other to see which one can hold their breath the longest, both knowing that there are limits to this sort of thing. • 28 August 2007